In our previous piece, we discussed some basic approaches for puppies that are a nuisance during playtime, because of the endless scratches they inflict on human skin. While this behavior is generally normal in young dogs, there is a point at which it needs to be addressed with more vigor. No, I am still not talking about “alpha rolls” or hitting. This is a delicate time of your youngster’s life, and shocking experiences will make a deep impression. Instead of teaching your dog not to bite so hard (or at all), you may be teaching him that humans are not to be trusted.

If your pup continues his too-aggressive frolicking beyond your application of the concept that overly rough dogs end up playing alone, you may need stronger measures. One of them is a noisemaker. If your pet doesn’t respond adequately to your sharply delivered code word (“ouch!”), you might try quickly shaking a can partly full of coins. This abrupt, unsettling sound is just what some pups need to interrupt their unwanted behavior and allow them to refocus. On the other hand, it won’t work well for dogs that react fearfully or with anything more pronounced than a brief startle. Remember that young dogs are very impressionable—creating a permanent noise phobia is not the desired outcome. Some more persistent cases will benefit from wearing a head collar all the time, which is a halter-like device that provides a convenient handle underneath the chin. Use this to redirect the pup’s attention away from your battered hands and toward an acceptable chew toy. When he latches on to the desired object, give him an encouraging word and a pat on the head. If the toy you chose isn’t to his liking, try to find one that’s more attractive. The more times he plays in an appropriate, gentle way, the more habitual this will become.

Some pups have had a rough start or just can’t seem to find their footing, socially speaking. They may act in a way that is actually not a variation on normal and portends future behavior issues. In my experience, owners that have this problem usually fail to recognize it and try to excuse their dog’s troublesome behavior because of his young age, thereby missing a golden opportunity to correct it more easily. I must stress that the occasional 2-5 month-old dog does have a serious issue that requires professional help. If your pup lunges at your face, that is a risky behavior which must be curbed immediately. If he bites you and leaves a puncture, you will probably need assistance. Short, higher-pitched growls during play are probably normal, but sustained, lower-pitched growls with lengthy direct eye contact should prompt you to seek guidance. If your pup acts in some way that scares you, obey your instincts and enlist a professional. Trainers and veterinarians are happy to help early on in your dog’s life, because it is in no one’s best interest to let a serious behavior problem fester and take hold permanently.

Dr. M.S. Regan